A rare night.

Hoarsening roars rise. An entire nation – in microcosm – sways in joyous unison. Its standard, held aloft, bathes itself in the mid-November sky. The cold is a familiar touch and, as such, is felt less keenly.  Palms meet with soft violence to offer a syncopated, but sincere, welcome to the newly-elected President of Ireland. The poet, at home amongst the beat, spreads a smile and half-dances across the electric dirt. The Aviva Stadium, greener than the mother turf, is shooting
sparks.

The legendary chess champion Bobby Fischer played the so-called ‘Game of the Century’ against Donald Byrne on October 17th, 1956, in New York City. Byrne, a former U.S. Open champion, was at this time ranked as one of the top ten players in the United States.

Fischer, meanwhile, was just 13-years-of-age and had been building a reputation as a prodigy in the city’s chess community. He devoted almost every waking hour to studying the game; consuming incredibly complex tomes on chess theory, as well as Russian magazines which examined the strategies employed by players from the game’s undoubted superpower.

In his match with Byrne, the youngster displayed a ruthless genius which would go on to make him the world’s finest player. After 16 moves, Fischer’s queen lies under attack. As the most powerful piece on the board, its loss would all but guarantee defeat. Yet, after minutes of deep thought, Fischer elects to move his knight – thus surrendering his queen to his opponent.

Pouncing on the teenager’s mistake, Byrne duly captures. From his very next move however, Fischer begins an all-out assault on his opponent’s king, as Byrne is forced to escape check after check and cannot regain his lost momentum. His queen sits stranded on the other side of the board as the black pieces close in and begin to smother.

It is an irresistible harmony of movement. Stubbornly defiant, Byrne continues to flee until he is finally mated by Fischer’s 41st move – Rc2#. His pieces are scattered, and unable to help their beleaguered monarch.
It is said that Byrne stayed seated, numbly staring at the 64 black and white squares upon which he had been so majestically bested for a short while after the game’s conclusion. The simple contrast of colours can produce a hypnotic effect. Black, white, black, white, black white…

Schweinsteiger plays a backwards pass to Reus, who finds himself wide on the left; deep inside his own half. From here, the Germans move with precise fury through the scattered Irish midfield from left – to centre – to right – to centre, before the ball is returned to the move’s original flank for Reus to add the finishing touch. The Irish players look lost. Their attack became their opponent’s so quickly that they are yet to understand quite how. Stretched across the field, they appear limp, vulnerable and divided. The crowd soon mimic them. They leave behind a vacuum. Soundless and devoid of energy; a ghost above Dublin City.

Final whistle. The Fields of Athenry has never sounded so much like hope. The Estonian players drift away unnoticed amidst the ecstatic crescendo. Irish players punt footballs into the Green Sea and people hug and dance and sing. Finally. ‘So this is how it feels?’  There are smiles, and a few tears, as the players are saluted like astronauts heading into space. New horizons.

We’re going to Poland/Ukraine.

No answers can be found, no other strategies can be called upon. Giovanni Trapattoni sits and stares. Black, white, black, white, black, white. Hypnotic. Powerless to stop the onslaught, stubborn resistance is all that’s left. When that inevitably fails; defeat.

There have never been any sophisticated tactics, but there has been organisation and luck. Now, the game has changed. The game has been changed. The prodigies are here, and they’ve seen the board with fresh eyes. Luck has deserted the old master; it may not be the last to do so.


This article originally featured on Extratime.ie

There was a Texas bluesman named Lightnin’ Hopkins who makes my stomach do that rollercoaster ‘drop’ when I hear him play. He’ll walk his fingers over this sleepy chromatic riff, like he’s asking you the time, before scratching a string against the fret board as he bends a note to the heavens, or deepest hell, and I’ll just lay there – gut-hurt and bleeding. Heaven or hell, music has no room for what’s in between. How can it then be anything but beautiful, frightening, and necessary?

The first time I ever heard Hopkins’ music, I was sinking through an ocean of late-evening darkness somewhere in my thin-walled, city centre apartment. The middle-distance shouts, laughs, screams and cries seemed to me to be the final bubbled-breaths of fellow drownees before they were smothered by the hand of Death – playing blues guitar at the end of the world.

“You’re gone and you left me / that’s the reason I’m gon’ cry”

His notes just fell away as he played, taking chunks of me with them. Each hammer-on would chisel through the stone until, by the end of the song, I was remade in the image of his pain, his longing.

“Sometimes I’d sooner be dead / you are the reason why”

That moment affected me. It was such a strange sensation to feel like I’d been taken over by the spirit of somebody I never knew, possessed almost, and his passion existed vicariously through my being. Now, I’m aware that that all sounds like something you might find Flathan trying to compute in his charlatan brain on TV3 at an ungodly hour of the morning – actually…*glances at clock – dials extortionate payphone service number* . To look at it through a more romantic, and clichéd, filter; I connected with the music, maaaan.

There is another medium through which I’ve experienced that feeling though: sport. ‘Beautiful, frightening, and necessary’. That’s what sport is to me. The link, and thus the reason I’m writing/watching TV3 right now, occurred to me last Friday night while I sat in the RSC watching Waterford United desperately attempt to keep their promotion hopes alive as they closed out a 2-1 win over Limerick FC. The entire Waterford team, bar the youthful, counter-attacking talents of Sean Maguire, was scrambling from one side of the field to the other like it was the first round at Wimbledon and Roger Federer was sending backhands screaming to each corner to set up the devastating winner. Limerick were relentless, desperate not to lose for the third consecutive time at the hands (feet) of their Munster rivals, and Waterford were just happy to get a racket to whatever they could and hope it cleared the net before coming, inevitably, back.

I want to point out that I am not a Waterford fan, but their being my hometown club makes them closer to me than any other team and I can’t help but want them to succeed. There’s also the more selfish reason – I am unspeakably sick of covering the First Division. So as I sat in the press box attempting to a) remain impartial and b) think of clever allusions to insert into my updates, I was failing pretty badly on both counts. I was feeling that sensation again. I was experiencing the passion and emotion of others even though they weren’t strictly my own.

When I began writing for Extratime three years ago, I wasn’t a League of Ireland fan in any sense of the word. I knew people who were, and had attended maybe two games in my life (barring glamorous friendlies). I joined up anyway because I had always wanted to be a journalist (I don’t anymore) and I was just beginning to take my first steps into that new and exciting world. I was writing for the sports section of my college paper and the idea of sitting in the press box, like a ‘proper’ journalist, and covering ‘proper’ football seemed terribly appealing. As it turns out, I quickly developed a deep affection for the thrill of match night. Coming through the gate, passing the smiling faces of the unheralded individuals who live behind the curtain; who keep the show alive.

The first glimpse of the bone-white crossbar and the shining hue of the grass mirrored in my own green eyes. Climbing the stone steps to the back of the Old Stand to take my seat became like ascending into the clouds – from where I could sit and watch everything play out before me in the great theatre of reality. But I still wasn’t a ‘fan’ of the team.

I didn’t feel that ‘drop’, it didn’t feel truly necessary. I could still go home after a tough loss, after promotion disappeared once again, after play-off defeat, after a manager who had always been generous and kind to me lost his job, and I didn’t feel overly down. I didn’t worry about next week, next season; I didn’t agonise over missed chances, deflections and mistakes. I wasn’t a fan.

Slowly though, perhaps by osmosis, I have felt that indifference shift and erode. I’ve grown more affected by the bad times (6-0 to Wexford Youths? Christ!) and more buoyed by the good. I’ve started to feel what the people in the stands who’ve devoted years to following their team feel. Their passion has started to seep into me, and take life in this new vessel.

I almost cheered at the full-time whistle. The fans in the Old Stand rushed forward like rain from my privileged cloud to shower their team in deserved praise and genuine affection. The players smiled up and clapped as they forced their weary legs to carry them to the dressing room under this downpour of love. The drum rhythms continued to pound in time with a couple hundred hearts and the triumphant songs which accompanied them were ones of hope. It was hard not to feel what they were feeling. I descended from my cloud grinning and high-fiving to hear the thoughts of the manager who had been taunted and mocked only months before, but had now heard the same stadium of people sing his name as the team which he created won their sixth game in a row. His smile was wider than mine, and again I felt the emotion surge.

When I was finished, and the ground now as quiet as the battlefield where only the dead remain, I had to return to the press box to fetch my laptop. All the lights had been turned off and I once more made my way up those celestial steps, this time shrouded in the blue night. I paused before leaving, and looked out upon the ghosts as they danced their final dance once more. I spent the walk home thinking about promotion.

The following troubled utterances all originally appeared on Extratime.ie as updates I gave on matches which I failed to take seriously.

Russia 4 – 1 Czech Republic

14′ – The Czechs have been the better team, though. When I said that during the last game, Poland scored a minute later. T-60 seconds to the opening goal…

15′ – Goal – I QUIT! EXTRATIME.IE, THIS IS MY NOTICE. LEAVING ON TOP!

19′ – Oh no, Dzagoev. Moments after opening the scoring, the Russian forward is played through on the counter-attack and, finding himself one-on-one with Cech, attempts to kick the ball the so hard that it creates a rift in the time/space continuum allowing him to go back and relive the feeling of scoring the opening goal. It goes wide.

24′ – Goal –  You’ll never tell me that Andrei Arshavin didn’t mean that pass – I simply won’t hear it. The meerkat-faced playmaker receives the ball to the left of the Russian midfield before sliding a deeeelicious ball through the heart of the Czech defence to meet the onrushing Shirokov, who dinks the ball over Cech sumptuously.

31′ – I would take that Arshavin pass out on a date and ask it about its hopes and dreams. Then I’d share a glass of wine with it in front of the fire before walking it home and kissing it goodnight.

55′ – Goal – This game needed that goal like Sonny needed Cher, like Joanie needed Chachi, like…like…like I need better knowledge of famous duos.

63′ – *Looks up from flicking pennies against the wall – ponders making something up to replace lack of action in game. Returns to flicking pennies against the wall.*

66′ – Arshavin isn’t playing football out there; he’s playing jazz. He is bewitching these Czech players with the intricacy and beauty of the melodies and rhythms he is creating. It’s improvisation at its most expressive best.

70′ – Kerzhakov is as tired as an insomniac running a marathon. He cuts inside his man before, once more, blasting off target.

73′ – Substitution – Roman Pavlyuchenko comes on in place of the absolutely knackered Kerzhakov for Russia.

79′ – Goal – Goodness me, that man has some serious anger issues. Pavlyuchenko plays a nice slide-rule pass into the path of Alan Dazagoev who hits the ball like he just caught it in bed with his wife. Emphatic finish from the youngster to grab his brace.

82′ – Goal – Roman Pavlyuchenko has time to check his stock portfolio and order a latte before lashing the ball beyond Petr Cech. It’s four for Russia – they’ve been marvellous.

86′ – Petr Cech hasn’t had this bad a time in a Czech shirt since he spilled a drink on his favourite Hollister garment.

Poland 1 – 1 Greece

 0′ – Euro 2012: Hello, Dean. Is that a canoe in your pocket or are you just happy to see             me?

 Dean: *blushes*

Salutations, one and all. I’m Dean Hayes and, for reasons unknown, Extratime have decided to allow me to paint the canvas of the opening day of Euro 2012. I’m a Jackson Pollock fan, so this could get messy.

0′ – Just before kick-off, I’ll allow both coaches to clear something up. Greece’s Fernando Santos: “Greece don’t have a Messi so it’s tactics first, then quality second.” Poland’s Franciszek Smuda: “Individuality is a player like Messi. We don’t have such players, so we should do our best to be strong as a team.” So, unlucky Messi fans.

10′ – The game’s opening has been a bit like Scooby Doo’s nephew: Scrappy.

14′ – Poland are looking very tasty on the counter-attack in these opening fifteen minutes. They break with speed and murderous intent. Defending, though, has been the nation’s past-time in Greece since the days of Leonidas and the Hot Gates.

17′ – Goal – He’s like a grenade covered in switchblades! The absurdly dangerous Robert Lewandowski scores the first goal of Euro 2012 with a firm header past Chalkias after a clever far-post run.

39′ – A word for the young Greek replacement; K-Pap (as he likes to be known) has scored three goals in eight internationals from centre-half.

41′ – I’ve also heard he’s very accepting and refuses to lecture others on his own personal beliefs. Apparently, Papa don’t preach.

48′ – Early sight of goal for Lewandowski. He’s under pressure though he as fires over from a tight-ish angle on the right of Greece’s penalty area. Greece have made Poland’s right flank so accomodating I’m expecting to see Jakub Blaszczykowski lounging on some pillows with a cup of tea and a copy of the Warsaw Times.

75′ – DOES DIMITRIOS SALPIGIDIS KNOW THE CHEAT TO FOOTBALL?! The man is everywhere; this time he taps home a low cross which he thinks has put his team ahead for the first time, but the linesman’s flag denies him.

Republic of Ireland 1 – 0 Bosnia & Herzegovina

0′ – U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’ rings out around a sun-soaked Aviva Stadium. Nice choice of music, though suddenly there is a slight breeze. YOU JINXING $%#$% OF A STADIUM P.A.! Nevermind that though, the Ireland team have just emerged onto the pitch for their warm-up. I’m Dean Hayes by the way and, if you can excuse my rudeness in not offering you an introduction sooner, I’ll take each of you by the hand and we shall frolic blissfully through the fields of friendly fun. 

0′ – Since it’s highly likely that Ireland will be doing an awful lot of defending and disciplined shape-keeping once they reach ‘Polkraine’, I’ve got a hunch that Trapattoni will let the lads get all the reckless abandon out of their system this afternoon. “Let’s have these, lads; Paris-style!” he probably won’t say.

0′ – The stadium is really starting to fill up as we reach a half-hour until kick-off. The atmosphere around the ground in the last couple of hours has been decidedly partyesque. I prepared for these updates by lounging in a beer garden with [a delightful mineral]. Most pleasant.

0′ – Currently there is a five-a-side penalty shoot-out taking place for charity on the pitch. The standard is pretty deplorable. Even Paul McGrath has blown one wide. Radio personality Hector [I'm not going to attempt to spell his second name]‘s team just won 2-1. On penalties. 2-1.

54′ – 
The sight of Richard Dunne leaving multiple defenders in his wake as he strides majestically, with the grace of a ballerina, has warmed me up considerably – even more than my half-time tea. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet but the Aviva press box is in the shade, and absolutely freezing! Like sub-arctic; cold as The Grinch’s heart. Yes, he is the most evil character I can think of. I’ve lived a very sheltered life.

57′ – Substitution – Bosnia & Herzegovina substitution: Mensur Mujdza is replaced by Adnan Zahirovic.

58′ – It still makes me shudder to think of how close he came to stealing Christmas…

59′ – The Grinch that is, not Bosnian substitute Adnan Zahirovic. I have no reason to think he’s ever terrorised Whoville

59′ – Crikey, while I’ve been waffling something’s happened! Pjanic almost justifies my interest in him with a stonking effort from a free-kick, but Westwood displays his cement-level wrist strength to keep him out.


This article originally appeared on BackPageFootball.

The air was heavy; the sheets clawed and grabbed with every turn. An exasperated sigh escaped and was quickly absorbed by the oppressive night. A diminutive, tanned figure lay spread-eagled with eyes cast to the ceiling; to the heavens. What torment was this? The figure sat up and rubbed at a brow thick with sweat and thought of Dante.

The ceiling fan, with its hypnotic revolutions, came to resemble a grotesque carousel as he broke free of his linen prison. Hotel carpet scratched underfoot as the surgical allure of the bathroom offered safe-haven. He had left the light on every night since the nightmares had come.

They were unclear, yet unsettling. Haunted by these macabre visions, a great unease had come to replace his usually laid-back persona. What had lately begun to trouble his companions were the distressed breakfast recollections. Each morning he arrived at his table with sunken, hopeless eyes and spoke gravely of the previous night’s terror.

“A Wall?”

“Yes”, he replied, “an enormous wall. Always I am faced with this terrible barricade. Twenty feet tall and wide as the land itself. But I am not alone – you all are with me.”

“That doesn’t sound so scary…”

“Ah, but you cannot feel it! This feeling of despair; of hopelessness. And the skies! The skies have opened and cannonballs drop like hail from an angry God. We move constantly to escape but this defiant structure is unmoved. I cannot stand it anymore.”

“This is ridiculous; you must see the doctor.”

“I have already. He told me to lay off the midnight cheese – but I cannot sleep without my Dairylea Lunchables. No, I must confront this menace.”

On this night, as he once more found himself sitting exhausted in the well-lit bathtub, the troubled figure had had enough. Springing forth from the ceramic comfort, he clasped either side of the ice-cold sink and shot a reluctant stare at the mirror. He found his own weary eyes; they sat uncomfortably atop two bountiful bags of coal.

“Be a man, this is a childish fear.”

He tried to force himself to hear his own words.

“You need your sleep – people depend on you. You cannot be affected by silly visions and worries.”

The pep talk seemed to work. He felt almost confident as he counted his steps back to bed – anything to distract his mind.

The nightmares that night were worse than ever.

His alarm, when it rang, was a lighthouse in the tempest. The comfort of day allowed his mind to regain a little clarity, and a little peace. The tiredness however refused to let up in even the smallest measure. Breakfast passed by in a swollen blur. He assured his friends that it was getting better.

The coach journey was decorated by well-wishers and curious observers – all of whom were met with a blank, unseeing gaze. As time passed, his mind began to race – building speed until he felt sure his innermost thoughts were soon to burst forth in an unpredictable crescendo. His pupils flicked and bounced alternately as he whispered to himself that everything would be ok on the pitch; that was his refuge.

Pre-match preparations were performed almost robotically – a kind of highway blindness for the limbs. Finally, and at least temporarily, he would be able to block out those unwanted thoughts and feelings and do what he loved to do. He even widened his lips to smile as a sea of light and noise engulfed him at the head of the narrow tunnel.

Fans cheered deafeningly and his eyes feasted upon glorious Technicolor. He was home. He looked all around in grateful wonder – until he encountered a sight which turned his whole body as cold as the cloudless desert night. For reasons he could not explain, the sight of his opposition filled him with barely-containable dread. A pair of green-clad journeymen clasped hands and smiled to one another. The names on their jerseys seemed vaguely, and unusually, familiar.

“Whelan, Andrews”, he muttered. “Whelan…Andrews…”

Suddenly the sky split with tremendous violence and the colour drained from his surroundings. His teammates began to flee before being halted by a deep rumbling below their feet. From the earth rose the formidable stone. Familiar horror froze him, and his tongue could find no words. Through the sound of cannonball rain, he thought he heard a sound. Yes. His manager’s voice:

“Xavi, Xavi!”

He jerked in his seat and rolled his head to scan the faces of his friends, all half-lit by the dim glow of a projector. At the top of the room stood the voice’s owner.

“Xavi, I know the training sessions have been tough but these opposition briefings are important” said Vicente del Bosque.

On a modest screen to his boss’ right, Xavi observed Liam Lawrence roll a free-kick to the edge of the box for Glenn Whelan to power home beyond Gianluigi Buffon.

“We must be professional in our approach and watch out for these rehearsed set-pieces” warned del Bosque. “Oh, and Xavi…”

“Yes, boss?”

“Go easy on the Dairylea.”


This article originally featured on Extratime.ie

“I once played in 45 degree heat, in Brazil against Santos; I was melting like a candle.” Giovanni Trapattoni’s parting words to the assembled media as he half-stood behind the small row of microphones which had been picking up his post-Bosnia thoughts. Having spent the game, a deserved 1-0 win for the home side, in the heavily shaded Aviva Stadium press box, the Italian’s rather graphic metaphor only really hit home once I headed outside into the Dublin sunshine. Making my way towards the city centre, my sweat began to feel like thick wax sliding away and diminishing what was left of my ill-scented frame.

I was not alone in this struggle, my Extratime colleague Brian Fitzgerald travelled with me and together we talked about this ‘new’ Ireland. From our privileged position, we had watched Aiden McGeady shift his body weight as though he were a sapling in a thunderstorm – the ball stood still at the roots, while Bosnian defenders followed the leaves. His inch-perfect delivery found the head of Shane Long and the Tipperary-native beat Asmir Begovic and his compatriots with one twist of his neck. Ireland had won again.

Afterwards, many dismissed the significance of the win as, after all, it was ‘only a friendly’. But that is exactly why it was significant. Brian and I discussed how marvellous it was that winning – or at least, not losing – had become the expectation and not the hope of Irish fans. Teams now recognise the danger of playing Ireland; and it is not a fear of an individual danger, it is the more potent fear of a unified collective, a team. Regardless of Ireland’s performance in the upcoming European Championships, perhaps Trapattoni’s greatest legacy will be the new mentality which he has installed in these Ireland players. “Ireland caps are no longer taken for granted”, opined Brian (I’m paraphrasing, as my alcohol-affected memory cannot be relied upon). And this is perfectly true. We’ve come an awfully long way from the days of Joey Lapira.

If you’ve stopped here to desperately recall where you’ve heard that name before, then my point is proven. Lapira was included in Steve Staunton’s Ireland squad for a summer tour of the United States in 2007. On May 23rd of that year, he became the first amateur to play for the Republic since Willie Browne in the early ‘60s. A celebrated ‘soccer’ player in the collegiate ranks of America at the time, Lapira has since gone on to lower-league Norwegian football via an unsuccessful trial at Rangers.

While many may rail against Trapattoni’s refusal to experiment and try new players, his rigid loyalty to his players – and more importantly his system – does have its benefits. For one, this squad is about as tight a group as will feature at these Championships. International football is famously the tortoise to club football’s hare from a manager’s perspective. Progress is slow, but Trapattoni has ensured that it is tangible. Even in friendlies, the Italian regularly starts his first-choice XI, ensuring that they continue to grow and learn as a group. He now trusts them implicitly.

Even when changes must occur; they are never seismic, they only alter by degrees – and even then, more Wexford in winter than Santos in summer. An example is James McClean, whose unforeseeable rise has propelled him into first-team contention. With the public demanding his inclusion, he has been given his chance with one caveat: he must learn to adapt his game to this system, and these teammates. He played 90 minutes on Saturday, with Trapattoni confirming that he wanted to allow the ex-Derry City winger as much time as possible to gel with the others. In other words, to show that he can be trusted.

Miguel Delaney recently penned a terrific article highlighting the crucial role played by the wingers in Trapattoni’s system. As the only players in the team awarded any true creative licence, they must run themselves into the ground in order to be a factor at both ends of the pitch. They must couple effective attacking play with the responsibility to be a part of the defensive effort by protecting their full-backs and keeping the Holy Shape. As Delaney points out, it is for this reason that they are almost always the first players to be substituted. It was heartening then, to see McClean backtracking and closing down consistently before he inevitably tired as the game wore on. He wants to fit in.

Once Brian and I had finally reached our destination, we began to relax and stopped talking shop. The Eurovision Song Contest played on the TV behind the bar, though mercifully drowned out by the sounds of every indie hit from the beginning of the last decade. A trio of American tourists sat on stools with faces of interested curiosity. Chicago-natives, they inquired thusly: ‘what the hell is this?” through beaming smiles. I tried to explain that behind the awful lip-synching and pageantry lay a chance for all of Europe to highlight their parochial biases. I said that it was a loaded deck; that the winners were the most outrageous or the ones who had the most friends. A popularity contest, the kind Ireland can’t win. At least not since it stopped being judged on vocal talent.

But this summer Ireland will have the chance to compete against their European brethren in a fair game. As Greece proved eight years ago, the unfashionable, unattractive team can win. If they are a TEAM. It may have been the Jack Daniels, but as I sat in the bar watching the beautiful Swedish entry stroll victoriously to the stage, I was filled with hope. Ireland probably won’t come close to winning the European Championships, but with such a stellar group we do have the opportunity to strike a blow for the lesser-shining stars of the footballing firmament. In a climate of £80 million transfer fees and prima-donna players, it would sure be nice to remind people of the power, and worth, of a true team.

We have been typecast as perennial underdogs, but that doesn’t mean we must settle for supporting roles. Trapattoni was brought in for this reason, he was brought in to scrap all pretences of aesthetic beauty and focus instead on results. This he has done. Ireland’s current mentality does not pander to idealism, it is pragmatic and effective. So much so, that even friendlies are treated with seriousness – that is Trapattoni’s greatest success. If the players are prepared to give their all in ‘meaningless’ games, then in a couple of weeks, with everything on the line, they are capable of greatness.

 


This article originally appeared in the UCC Express.

Been up since 6 am. Two bananas and a cereal bar for breakfast, it’s my day. I can feel it. Find my gear bag and pull back the zip. The smell stings my nostrils, sweet perfume. The smell of Sunday mornings. My smell. Tough game today, crucial game. Home to the league leaders. Haven’t lost in eight games, champions-elect. Due a loss. Mustn’t think about that yet. Concentrate on my preparation, same routine. Walk the dog, clean my boots. Which boots to wear? The black pair? Steady, reliable, nothing too flashy, do the job. A defender’s boot. Not for me, not today. The red pair? Silky, bright, dazzle the defenders, classy. A goalscorer’s boot. That’s the pair. My pair. They’ll all remember me.

Fill the bag and double check everything. Out to the car and put on the CD I made last night. My favourite songs. Inspirational. Motivational. Mentality is everything. I’m ready. Clouds disappear as I drive. Beautiful day. My day. There it is. The club gates. The outline of the prefab dressing rooms. Nerves kick in, only natural. Nobody else here yet, I’m always first. Time to get changed, prepare for battle. Bicycle shorts, check. Team shorts, check. Shin-pads, check. Under-armour, check. Flashy boots, check. Team socks, check. Over-socks I saw Torres wear last weekend, check. Pull socks above my knees like Henry, look the part. Team-mates are here now, so is the manager. The gaffer. Knows all about me. Knows my game. Trusts me. I look into his eyes. Not giving anything away, a slight glint as he sees me. I’m in the team. I can feel it.

Time to warm up. Walk over to the pitch. My pitch. Big crowd building, at least twelve. Biggest of the season. Extra pressure, more nerves. Could be some scouts here. Off to England, ad deals, sponsorships, fame. Matter of time. Go through the stretches, got to be thorough. Clubs don’t want injured players. Back to the dressing room for the team-talk. Barely hear a word, in the zone. Focused. Gaffer names the team. On the bench, gutted. Gaffer is smart though, wants to keep me fresh. Ran myself into the ground in training. I’ll win it late on. Secret weapon. Jerseys handed around, number 22. Kaka’s old number, big boots to fill. I’m ready.

Game starts, come on lads. Don’t watch it; too busy dribbling past the gaffer with the spare ball. Keep in his mind; he knows I’m eager to play. Only twelve players today so alone on the sideline. More room to warm up. Know I’m better than the other lads but they need a game too. They go a goal down, doesn’t look good. No leader on the pitch, no touch of class. No flashy boots. Half-time whistle. I bring the ball to the far goal and practice my finishing while the lads get the team-talk. Bottom corner. Top-corner. Precision. Class. I could get a hat-trick today. Easy.

Second half. I move up and dribble next to the fans. They’re impressed, must be wondering why I’m not on the pitch. They deserve to be entertained. I think about my celebration, practiced a few in my room last night. Can’t wait to get on. Time running out now. Ten minutes to go and I’m still on the line, the lads are still losing. Getting anxious, keep glancing at the gaffer. He trusts me. Five minutes to go, I get the shout. Finally. Sprint over and make sure my socks are pulled up fully. Gaffer doesn’t give me any instructions. Doesn’t need to, I know what he wants from me. Trusts me. Run onto the pitch. My pitch. Take my place up front and start making some runs. Screaming for the ball, eager. Ball comes into my feet outside the box. Back-heel first time, without looking. Out for a goal-kick. Stare at my strike-partner. Not on my wavelength. Torres would have read the pass. Time running out, game slipping away. Our winger gets down the left and crosses the ball. Defender clears to the edge of the box. Right in front of me, perfectly timed run. Think about my celebration as I run to the ball. Bounces up perfectly. Time to take a touch. Don’t need one, go for the spectacular. Swing my leg back as the ball bounces up. Catch it clean, on the volley. Ball rockets off my foot, sweet strike. But no, keeps rising. Keeps rising. Well over the bar and onto the main road. Damn! So unlucky, tough chance. Did well just to connect at all.

Full-time. Heartache. Shake hands, gracious in defeat. Not my day, nothing I could do. Didn’t have enough time, should have started. Gaffer knows. Sure to start next week, I know it. Back into the car. Hate losing, still bottom of the league. Doesn’t matter, I’m in form. Best player on the pitch today. Bring on next weekend!


This article originally appeared on BackPageFootball.

As Howard Webb’s whistle pierced the air inside the Estadio do Dragao last night, a beaming smile (revealing more than a touch of relief) broke out on the face of Andre Villas-Boas. It’s turning into quite a debut year at FC Porto for the youngest manager in Portugal. A pulsating 1-0 defeat to Sevilla secured an away goals victory for Villas-Boas’ team and granted them safe passage into the next round of the Europa League. Porto currently sit comfortably, and increasingly regally, atop the Liga Zon Sagres. Having won 18 of their 20 games thus far and yet to taste defeat in the league, the club’s 33-year-old manager has been drawing plaudits, and covetous glances, from every corner of the footballing world. This praise has been tempered by some, who insist that European success must be the barometer by which he be ultimately judged. The Europa League victory could thus prove pivotal in the ongoing development of this club, and this manager.

Villas-Boas’ is quite a unique story, he assumed the manager’s role at Porto at the bewilderingly young age of 32 and with less than one whole season’s experience of running a team. This coming at Academica, where he guided the club from bottom of the league in October to the relative comfort of eleventh place and a League Cup semi-final appearance against his future employers. Villas-Boas won the Academica job on the strength of his success as an assistant to Jose Mourinho, for whom he worked at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. He had developed a reputation as a keen tactical intellect and was renowned for his scouting reports on opposition teams during his time with Mourinho and once he decided to indulge his own lofty ambitions, the comparisons would be inevitable. Yet it would be unfair to cast Mourinho’s considerable shadow over his former assistant as, despite adopting his 4-3-3 formation, Villas-Boas has certainly departed from the now Real Madrid manager’s style of play and is fully implementing his own vision.

The 4-3-3 of Villas-Boas’ Porto is a particularly fluid and attack-orientated formation. Its key is its energetic and creative three man midfield, generally consisting of holding midfielder Fernando sitting behind Joao Moutinho and Fernando Belluschi. Villas-Boas likes his team to get the ball into midfield and utilise a high-tempo build-up centred around the interplay of his three midfielders. They are a constant hive of activity, working for space in order to play their one-and two-touch football and work the ball across the pitch. They are adept at operating in a congested midfield and their quick passing allows the ball to be worked to the wings, and especially the right-wing home of the team’s undoubted jewel, Hulk. The Brazilian is an outstanding talent and his pace, strength and trickery allow him to operate down the touch-line as a traditional winger or to come inside and create from a central position. Porto’s main striker, Falcao, will often drop deep in order to offer himself as a wall pass to a centrally-arriving Hulk or to an onrushing midfielder. If the latter, a defender’s attempts to stay tight to Falcao will often allow Hulk or fellow winger Varela to make a run into the space which has been vacated and create an excellent goal scoring opportunity. When the ball is being kept in midfield, Hulk can drift infield and operate just off of Falcao, the onus then falls on the right full-back to maintain the team’s width down that flank. This extra man in the middle allows Falcao to threaten the defence in behind while Hulk becomes a deep outlet for the midfield, or vice versa. This interchangeability creates a very unpredictable and fluid attack.

The team’s goalkeeper, Helton, looks to feed his centre-halves when in possession, allowing the team to build from the back and benefit from the generally diminutive stature of the team as well as their skilled short passing game. However a noticeable weak link is Helton’s distribution when the opposition has cut off the short options. His kicking is highly erratic and often inaccurate. Villas-Boas is not however averse to a more direct build-up and employs this during games in an attempt to catch the opposition off guard. Falcao can threaten with a run in behind the defence and Porto have numerous players adept at playing a deep through ball. On occasions when a long ball is played to a winger, the midfield are quick to reach the man in possession in order to offer a short passing option and begin their high-tempo passing from a more advanced position on the field.
Defensively, Porto can be quite vulnerable, this due to their offensive philosophy. With such an emphasis placed on movement and supporting forward players, the team is naturally liable to be caught out if possession is lost. The sheer energy of the midfield can sometimes make up for this lack of defensive discipline due to being able to get back into position once the opposition steals the ball. Holding midfielder Fernando is an exceptionally mobile player and contributes well in the offensive side of the game but his defensive positioning can leave his back-line exposed to runs from deep. The midfield and forwards operate a tight pressing game when the opposition begins to enter the Porto half. They seek to get close to the man in possession without committing to tackles or being overly aggressive, instead waiting to capitalise on a mistake.

Porto are currently in possession of the best attack in the Portuguese league (46 goals scored) and the best defence (7 goals conceded) and their only losses this season have come in cup competitions, whether domestic or European. Villas-Boas continues to be lauded as the brightest young star in the managerial firmament and it’s not hard to see why. Aside from his tactical acuity, he maintains an impressive demeanour. He almost struts around his technical area, more confident than arrogant. A pondering look upon his face and his hands pushing back his suit jacket as they rest upon his hips. It is said that a team’s personality is a reflection of its managers’, it is no surprise then to see Porto’s confident, assured and expressive play mirrored by the sight of Villas-Boas’ calm gesturing or nonchalant sipping of a bottle of water. He exudes an air of controlled enthusiasm which appears to translate to his players. Despite his focus on the tactical nuances of the game, the Porto native has also stated his belief in the importance of individual expression from players. He does not orchestrate the every note his musicians are to play, rather he has created an environment akin to a jazz ensemble. He names the song but his players are free to improvise and express within it’s confines. Surely it won’t be long before he creates his first masterpiece.

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